Review of “Thinks…” by David Lodge

David Lodge’s Thinks… is an “academic” novel, a story set on a university campus, ostensibly about an affair between two faculty members.  However, the real story is about consciousness, a hot topic in cognitive science in recent decades.  The man, Ralph Messenger, typifies the established academic, whose duties include teaching both undergraduate and graduate students, research and the administration of a privately funded research institute.  Not all fully tenured professors head up independent organizations, but such positions are common among successful scientists and scholars employed by universities.  The woman, Helen Reed, is a visiting novelist, who is filling the teaching position left temporarily vacant by a faculty member in the School of English.  (The novel is set in England, so the university has “schools” rather than departments.)

While the plot focuses on the events of Ralph and Helen’s romance, the theme of the book is really C. P. Snow’s “two cultures,” science and the arts.  Consciousness turns out to be a subject right at the interface of science and literature.  From its very beginnings, the novel has been a vehicle for conveying other people’s inner thoughts and feelings.  Because we can never observe what is going on in the minds of others and are forced to rely on what they tell us, fiction gives the illusion of “being inside someone else’s head.”  I say illusion, because that is what Ralph calls it when the topic first comes up for serious discussion with Helen.  She isn’t acquainted with research in cognitive science, whereas Ralph can claim thorough familiarity with literature behind the façade of the well-educated don.  He freely admits to himself that he rarely reads fiction now, although he, like most scientists, would maintain that his well-rounded college education necessarily included adequate exposure to the best novels.

Lodge skillfully uses Helen and Ralph’s diaries as a device to tell us what they are thinking and feeling as their story unfolds.  Helen keeps a conventional diary, although her literary habits make it read like a well-edited narrative.  At one point she even switches to close third-person narration to describe her perspective on what has happened.  Ralph disguises his diary as “research” into the mind in a stream-of-consciousness, free-association tape recording of his thoughts, which inevitably cover the same ground as Helen’s formal diary.  At first, the two diaries provide the two character’s backstories, partway into Ralph’s first taped monologue on a Sunday morning he rises from his desk and looks out his windows to see Helen crossing the campus in the rain.  And Helen includes in one of her early journal entries the dinner party where she meets Ralph, and they begin a somewhat heated intellectual argument that becomes the touchstone of their later interactions.  Both enjoy a good argument and are skilled at it, unlike others at the party.

Although the novel contains extensive discussion of awareness as it is objectified in cognitive science and fiction, we never get to see Ralph engaged in research nor Helen actually writing a novel.  We are witnesses to Ralph supervising graduate students’ projects on artificial intelligence and Helen critiquing the fiction of the students taking her creative writing workshops.  The former gives a sample of research in robotics and a glimpse of the issues involved in creating programs that are “conscious.”  However, these scenes serve a didactic role in pushing the story forward, while Ralph’s actual activities are more administrative.  Lodge uses the work of Helen’s students on class exercises to illustrate the process writers use to make someone else’s thoughts and feeling explicit — a very effective literary device.  And the novel one of Helen’s students is working on for the course provides a major turning point in the plot.

Lodge portrays Helen and Ralph with both insight and humor.  I came to feel both sympathy for them and understanding of the work and aspirations.  Whether Thinks… is fiction about science depends, I suppose, on whether the reader is more interested in the central problem of contemporary cognitive science or in a realistic and sympathetic portrait of a scientist as a human being.  I was able to enjoy the book both ways, and came away feeling that it had done a good job of giving me both kinds of experience.

, , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply